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Stuck in amid hell with you
The word ‘amid’ is scarcely used at all in spoken or written English. Why, then, is it so popular with journalists?
Amid, among, a muddle. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
“Hi, Brian! Where’s Sophie?”
“Sophie and I have split up amid rumours of an affair.”
“Why are you talking like that?”
“This conversation comes amid revelations that I’ve landed a job as a subeditor.”
Obviously, the exchange above never took place, because no one talks like that. (If they did, you could be forgiven for putting your fist amid their face.) More to the point, no one writes like that; except, it would seem, people of news.
On the Guardian website – and we’re not the worst offenders – a new instance of the word “amid” pops up more than 50 times a day. Recent events have, according to this august organ, unfolded amid claims, reports, preparations, a storm of controversy, mounting anger, fears, rumours and uncertainty; amid tensions, allegations, calls, protests, growing consumer confidence, website glitches, a desperate wait, a walkout, a Treasury warning (must have been one heck of a warning) and a reshuffle.
When only one group of people use a word or construction in a particular way, it’s a sign, more often than not, that jargon is afoot
Robert Hutton, in his ripping read Romps, Tots and Boffins, an encyclopedia of journalistic cliches, deals with amid swiftly and dismissively:
“After: we will now imply a link between two events that may or may not be related. Or try ‘ahead of’, ‘comes as’ or ‘in the wake of’.
“Amid: may be appropriate if ‘after’ or ‘in the wake of’ aren’t.”
The original, literal meaning of amid, dating from the 14th century, is “in the middle of”, or “surrounded by”. I have no beef with this application. (Provided, that is, it’s not confused with among. Amid means surrounded by an uncountable mass; among means surrounded by countable objects. So “amid the undergrowth”, but “among the tulips”.)
But it’s also taken on a metaphorical sense, describing relationships in time; either literally, meaning “while” or “during”, or more loosely, meaning “in a climate of”, “against a background of”. Hence “famish them amid their plenty” (Shakespeare) and “the dull glowering anger amid which he brooded upon his longing” (Joyce).
These uses can be perfectly legitimate, but in the hands of journalists, they seem to have stretched to encompass … well, just about any relationship you can imagine.
“UK invests £20m in Tanzania amid push to replace aid with trade”
Wouldn’t “in” or “as part of” be more natural, and perhaps more informative?
“Airbus raises demand forecast amid booming Asian market”
Can things really take place amid a market? “As Asian market booms” would be better. Or at least “amid Asian market boom”.
“Central African Republic atrocities escalate amid rampaging rival militias”
Now it’s hard to tell whether the use is literal or metaphorical. “As rival militias rampage” would surely be better.
“Golden Dawn remains defiant amid Greek revulsion at musician’s murder”
Despite, maybe? In face of?
You can see why it comes in useful. News stories often need context, and amid offers a simple way of connecting one event to another. More to the point, it offers a short way of connecting one event to another, which is why, along with all the other journalese terms that no one else uses – ire, slam, hike, probe, bid, raft, axe and hail – it crops up so often in headlines and standfirsts. (Although it must be said that amid isn’t a great deal shorter than many of the less jargony alternatives, such as during, after, despite, while and in.)
But it also turns up with exasperating regularity in the body of the text, often as a sort of universal connector, a one-stop shop for all your prepositional needs. When a word has come to mean everything, it arguably no longer means anything. And words, in journalism more than in any other form, should be chosen where possible for their accuracy, not their expediency.
“US secretary of state John Kerry held talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in his second visit to the region within a week amid reports that the Americans are intensifying efforts to break the logjam in peace talks.”
It wouldn’t take much work to phrase things more clearly and naturally here: “On his second visit to the region in a week, US secretary of state John Kerry held talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, as part of a concerted effort by the Americans to break the deadlock in peace talks.”
You place a concerned metaphorical hand on my arm. “It may be overused,” you say softly. “It may even at times be a little confusing. But an entire column about one little word? Aren’t you overreacting?”
Well, of course I am. I’m a subeditor. But I would say in my defence that amid enjoys a special place among journalistic cliches, insofar as it can also be downright misleading.
Such is the syntax of the word that it can have the effect of adding weight to an otherwise flimsy assertion: “The shift in the balance of power comes amid warnings from counter-terrorism experts that the two main al-Qaida-affiliated groups are now better established …” You might be surprised, on reading the rest of the article, to discover that precisely one warning was issued, by one counter-terrorism expert.
Another syntactical drawback (or bonus) is that amid allows the writer or editor to assert that something has happened without attributing it to anyone at all:
“Amid heightened concern over a long-term increase in childhood obesity and the public-health implications of increasingly sedentary lifestyles, the numbers will make grim reading for those who claimed London 2012 would inspire more young people to play sport.”
Aside from the fact that this is horribly ungainly – you need a machete to hack through that forest of prepositions – this construction sneakily avoids telling us whose concern has been heightened, and when. For all we know, it’s just the reporter’s. A rewrite is called for here: “The numbers will make grim reading for those who claimed London 2012 would inspire more young people to play sport, and add to the medical establishment’s concern over childhood obesity and sedentary lifestyles.”
I don’t want, much less expect, all use of amid to cease forthwith. But I wouldn’t mind if people started applying it a little more judiciously; if we started to see one or two fewer amids, and one or two more afters, durings, because ofs, ins, at the peak ofs, in the heart ofs, in the face ofs, despites, givens, in a climate ofs, in the context ofs, in the light ofs, as part ofs and as a result ofs in their place.
• This article was amended on 10 January 2014. It mistakenly referred to the author of Romps, Tots and Boffins as Don Hutton. His name is Robert Hutton. This has been corrected.
Andy Bodle is a subeditor and scriptwriter who blogs at http://www.womanology.co.uk.
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